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NFL 2019: Saints aim to overcome past playoff devastation

Thu Aug 22 12:08pm ET
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer

Players: Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Cook, Mark Ingram, Latavius Murray, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton walks on the sideline in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)


In this Nov. 11, 2018, file photo, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs in for a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half of an NFL football game, in Cincinnati. The NFC Souths reputation as the NFLs most balanced division has taken a hit. The New Orleans Saints two-year run as division champion, including a dominant showing in 2018, has left other teams eager to prove there is still parity in the South. (AP Photo/Frank Victores, File)


New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) runs during a joint NFL football practice with the Los Angeles Chargers in Costa Mesa, Calif., Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)


New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, right, looks to throw a pass during a joint NFL football practice with the Los Angeles Chargers in Costa Mesa, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)


NEW ORLEANS (AP) Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints may very well be on a revenge tour this season, whether they frame it that way publicly or not.

The Saints are among the favorites to contend for the Super Bowl berth they were agonizingly denied last season by both the Los Angeles Rams and an untimely officiating lapse in the NFC title game. And that heartbreak came just one year after their previous postseason run was stunningly halted by the first decisive touchdown on the final snap of regulation in NFL playoff history - on a 61-yard passing play, no less.

Brees, who is 40 and entering his 19th season, asserts that professionalism demands compartmentalization, so that disgust about the recent past doesn't undermine one's focus on the work at hand as a new season arrives.

At the same time, the record-setting quarterback doesn't pretend bad memories can be wiped clean from one's mind, or have no motivational value going forward.

''It's not like you just totally forget that,'' Brees said. ''There's defining moments from your career - I certainly know I've had my fair share - that I can reflect back on and still sting a little bit, still burn a little bit, and still motivate, and still inspire. That's part of what keeps you going.''

The NFL changed rules allowing coaches to ask for replay review when they feel a call was missed, as the NFL has acknowledged two calls were when a Rams defender got away with pass interference and a helmet hit late in the NFC title game. That change comes too late to make up for the non-call that helped the Rams rally to tie the game with 15 seconds left and win in overtime.

But the good news for the Saints is that much of the core of their past two playoff squads is young and remains intact.

Leading receiver Michael Thomas, who arrived at camp after getting a big contract extension, is entering just his fourth season, while dynamic running back Alvin Kamara, top cornerback Marshon Lattimore and starting right tackle Ryan Ramczyk are in Year 3.

Most of their veteran leaders are back as well, from 2017 All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and middle linebacker Demario Davis on defense to Brees and left tackle Terron Armstead on offense.

The Saints also made a notable addition to coach Sean Payton's offensive arsenal in free agency when they signed tight end Jared Cook, who had career-best receiving numbers in Oakland last season and has quickly demonstrated chemistry with Brees in camp.

A third straight trip to the playoffs looks likely, but Brees figures it's hardly appropriate to start thinking about that before the regular season has even begun.

Every team except the defending Super Bowl champion ''fell off the mountain,'' Brees said. ''They're sitting down at the bottom and now here goes the climb, one step at a time. So I'm not thinking about February of 2020 right now. That's a long way away and that's an overwhelming feeling if you decide to look to there. So I'm just focused on the here and now.''

Here are some other prominent story lines for the 2019 Saints:

END GAME

The Saints want to punish teams for blocking schemes that overemphasize stopping Jordan's edge rush. One hope is that second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport fulfills more of the potential New Orleans saw in him when it traded up to select him in the first round of the 2018 draft. Davenport shared snaps last season with Alex Okafor, and his 4 + sacks tied with defensive tackle David Onyemata for fourth on the club. But the Saints let Okafor walk in free agency, opening the way for Davenport to become more of a full-time end.

''The second year into it, I think he's a lot more comfortable with where he's aligned in the technique involved,'' Payton said.

Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was second on the Saints with eight sacks, but is working his way back from a torn Achilles tendon. New Orleans brought in former New England Patriot Malcom Brown to help fill that void.

CONTRACT YEAR

Brees, the NFL's career leader in yards passing and completions , is in the final season of his contract. But heading into 2019, there's been no clear sign of decline. If anything, he's playing smarter. He had one of the most efficient seasons in NFL history in 2018, completing an NFL record 74.4% of his passes. His 32 touchdowns to just five interceptions was the second-best such ratio in the NFL last season behind Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. His 3,992 yards passing were his lowest yet since joining the Saints in 2006, but he sat out the inconsequential last game of the regular season. Plus, Payton's play calling took advantage of one of the NFL's top running games, particularly with late-game leads.

''It's just finding ways to stay young, feel young, recover, be as efficient as possible. Having the body operate as efficient as possible,'' Brees said. ''I'm pretty aware of what you lose with the aging process. And so, everything I do from a training perspective, recovery perspective, is to combat that.''

CENTER OF ATTENTION

The Saints responded to the retirement of veteran center Max Unger by signing free agent Nick Easton and then using their top overall draft pick - in the second round - to take Texas A&M's Erik McCoy. Based on snaps in training camp and in the preseason, it looks like the rookie will be snapping the ball to Brees in the opener. Payton has said that even if Easton doesn't start, his ability to play both guard and center would give the Saints favorable depth along the interior offensive line.

INGRAM'S ABSENCE

The Saints' biggest loss in free agency appeared to be running back Mark Ingram, who shared snaps with Kamara to great effect the past two seasons. With Ingram leaving for Baltimore, the Saints brought in former Minnesota running back Latavius Murray. Murray hasn't been used as a receiver out of the backfield as much in his career as the Saints did with Ingram, but Payton said New Orleans is hoping Murray will prove competent in the short passing game to keep defenses off balance.

Player Notes
Rex Burkhead Sep 21 1:40am ET

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead saw plenty of chances in the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He was the primary receiving back with James White (personal) inactive for this game. Burkhead rushed six times for two yards and caught four of six targets for 47 yards through the air. It was a nice uptick for Burkhead, but he won't be on the fantasy radar going forward. James White is expected to be back for their matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3.

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Julian Edelman Sep 21 1:40am ET

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was doing everything he could versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. He caught eight of 11 targets for 179 receiving yards in the loss. He has been held scoreless through the first two games, but this performance was a step in the right direction. The Patriots don't have many weapons, so they will likely continue to lean on Edelman going forward. He should be considered a high-end WR3 versus the Las Vegas Raiders next week.

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N'Keal Harry Sep 21 1:40am ET

New England Patriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry is looking like he is primed for a breakout campaign in 2020. He hauled in eight of his 12 targets for 72 yards during the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Harry saw the most targets on the team and tied with Julian Edelman for the most receptions. He should continue to be heavily involved in this offense going forward. Fantasy owners should be able to count on him as a flex option for next week against the Las Vegas Raiders.

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Cam Newton Sep 21 1:30am ET

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton continued his positive play versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. He completed 30 of 44 passing attempts for 397 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Newton also rushed 11 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns in the loss. He was almost able to lead his team to a comeback victory, but was stopped on the goal line. Newton has looked sharp during the first two games of the season. He'll get a favorable matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3. Fantasy owners should be able to continue to lean on Newton for that one.

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Sony Michel Sep 21 1:30am ET

New England Patriots running back Sony Michel was unable to get anything going on the ground versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. He rushed seven times for 19 yards in the loss. The Patriots basically abandoned the running game in the second half, so Michel didn't see many chances after the second quarter. He'll get a matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3, but fantasy owners should consider Michel a touchdown dependent RB3 right now.

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Dwayne Haskins Sep 20 10:30pm ET

Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins played efficiently for the second straight week in a loss to the Cardinals on Sunday. Haskins completed 19-of-33 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown and didn't throw an interception for the second consecutive week. He did lose a fumble, but Haskins has just one turnover through two games which was an issue for him as a rookie. He won't put up the flashiest stats, but Haskins seems to be a quality QB2 in fantasy. He'll have a good matchup with Cleveland in Week 3 where he should be started in two-quarterback leagues.

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Carolina Panthers Sep 20 10:30pm ET

The Carolina Panthers Defense allowed 31 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a Week 2 loss. To make matters worse, Carolina didn't record a sack, but they did manage to pick up a fumble recovery and an interception. There may not be many promising days with this unit this year in fantasy, though there may be some weeks where they could be streamed. Perhaps they could be streamed in Week 3 against the Chargers, depending upon who they declare as their starting quarterback.

From RotoBaller

Joey Slye Sep 20 10:20pm ET

Carolina Panthers kicker Joey Slye made his lone field-goal attempt and both his extra-points in a Week 2 loss. Slye made the most of his opportunities, considering the limited amount of chances in the red zone. The 24-year-old has been efficient so far, making all four field-goals and missing just one extra-point. Slye should continue to be a solid, starting option for fantasy managers when he takes on the Chargers in Week 3.

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Antonio Gibson Sep 20 10:10pm ET

Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson handled 13 carried for 55 yards and his first career touchdown in a loss to the Cardinals on Sunday. Gibson only had one catch for minus-three yards in the passing game, but it was good to see the rookie more involved than Week 1. Gibson's 13 carries were five more than anyone on the team and he was the one handling the red zone touches. Gibson is in a great spot to break out next week against a Browns Defense that's been gashed thus far in 2020.

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Ian Thomas Sep 20 10:10pm ET

Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas wasn't targeted in a Week 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thomas has sleeper potential but completely disappeared in the gameplan, as he inexplicably didn't see a pass thrown his way. This comes a week after he saw two targets in the first game of the season. He could be a streamer down the line, but there's no way to justify using him in any format for fantasy football right now.

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Keelan Cole Sep 20 10:03pm ET

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Fantasy Spin: Cole averaged just 9.7 yards per reception, but he was still very productive. He is worth a look as a WR5 in most fantasy leagues, with a little more value in PPR formats, heading into Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday.

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Curtis Samuel Sep 20 10:00pm ET

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel was targeted just twice against the Buccaneers, though he also had four carries for 26 rushing yards. Samuel did see eight targets in Week 1, but other than that, he has been disappointing so far. One positive to take from this game is that the Panthers utilized him more as a runner, which is something that could add a lot of diversity to their offense. That's a role Samuel could play if Christian McCaffrey (ankle) is forced to miss time. Unfortunately, Samuel will be hard to trust in fantasy lineups until he proves he can produce with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

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Braxton Berrios Sep 20 9:53pm ET

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Fantasy Spin: Jamison Crowder was inactive for the contest, and Breshad Perriman and Chris Hogan both suffered injuries. Berrios could have flex value as the best receiver still standing for the Jets, especially if Crowder remains sidelined.

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D.J. Chark Sep 20 9:53pm ET

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Fantasy Spin: Chark was unable to find the end zone like in Week 1, but his fantasy production was about the same with the big bump in receiving yardage. He remains a solid WR3 or flex fantasy option in leagues of 12 or more teams heading into Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday.

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Christopher Herndon IV Sep 20 9:53pm ET

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Robby Anderson Sep 20 9:50pm ET

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Frank Gore Sep 20 9:43pm ET

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Fantasy Spin: With Le'Veon Bell sidelined, Gore assumed a workhorse role. He should remain the lead back while Bell is out, but he only has so much upside in the Jets' struggling offense. At best, he is a volume-based flex option.

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Mike Davis Sep 20 9:40pm ET

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Sam Darnold Sep 20 9:33pm ET

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Fantasy Spin: The Jets have been a mess on offense to start the year, and Darnold is averaging under 200 yards passing through two games. He isn't even a QB2 candidate at this point.

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Christian McCaffrey Sep 20 9:20pm ET

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